Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Patrick Moynihan’

The Ultimate Origin of the Coalitions Punitive Attitude to the Poor: Richard M Nixon

January 22, 2014

I mentioned in an earlier post this week that I’ve been reading Anthony Marcus’ book Where Have All the Homeless Gone. It’s a fascinating book by an American anthropologist, who did his doctoral research amongst a group of 55 homeless Black American men. Much of the book is about the way the American welfare policies towards the homeless failed because of the particular ideological construction of ‘the homeless’. He notes that up until the great depression of the 1920s, studies of homelessness in America were confined to Skid Row, the poor, low rent areas of American cities populated by single room occupancy hotels, homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes and other marginal groups. During the 1930s academic studies of homelessness expanded to include the migrant poor, forced by the Depression to move from the mid-west to California to find work, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath. He argues that all American studies of homelessness adopted a geographical approach to their subject. The homeless and poor occupied particular areas away from urban centres of culture. This view broke down in the 1980s, when the homeless increasingly began to appear outside their ghettos in prosperous residential and commercial areas.

The book also critiques the ‘cultures of poverty’ approach introduced by Harrington, a member of the Catholic Workers and the author of The Other America, one of the great liberal studies of poverty in the US. Marcus states that Roosevelt’s reliance on the Southern Dixiecrats for support within the Democrat party meant that Black Americans were largely excluded from the New Deal. This instead concentrated on White, unionised Americans in regular work. Harrington attempted to correct this at the beginning of the 1960s with The Other America. Part of his purpose in writing the book was to shame mainstream America with the portrait of the grinding poverty that existed in most powerful and wealthiest nation, and move their compassion into the adoption of policies that would raise them out of poverty and integrate them into mainstream America. Harrington was one of the people Lyndon Johnson appointed to his ‘poverty taskforce’ when attempting to construct the Great Society.

Marcus is critical of Harrington because Harrington’s book led to the view that his ‘Other America’ was somehow deviant from the mainstream in that it did not share its values. The book stated that the citizens of this America were without history and beyond progress. Marcus earlier discusses the division of the poor by 19th century Liberals into the categories of the ‘deserving poor’ and paupers. The deserving poor were the poor, who shared mainstream values and had simply fallen into poverty through no fault of their own. Paupers were the undeserving poor, whose poverty was their own fault through their lack of proper morals. These were poor through drunkenness, idleness, profligacy and other vices. This attitude the subsequently entered the scholarship about the ‘other America’ described by Harrington. Marcus notes that no two of the sociologists and anthropologists researching this ‘other America’ agreed on who they were, and the difference between them and mainstream America was merely assumed, rather than demonstrated. Rather than address the question of how their poverty was created by American society, these scholars were instead concerned with identifying who they were. Harrington’s idea that there was a distinct ‘culture of poverty’ was taken over by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a liberal Harvard sociologist, who adopted a Weberian approach to poverty. Moynihan became Nixon’s advisor on poverty and homelessness. Marcus states that, although Nixon launched a number of welfare initiatives aimed at erasing poverty, these were based on the idea of gradually weaning the poor off them. It was under Moynihan and Nixon that the various categories and derogatory terms for the undeserving poor developed, and punitive measures, like Food Stamps, introduced, which were intended to make the experience of welfare as humiliating as possible.

The ‘cultures of poverty’ view that people are poor, through their own fault entered British discussions of the origins of poverty and the role of the welfare state with Margaret Thatcher. It has now become a key part of the Coalitions’ own welfare policies. Many other commenters, like Jaynelinney, Johnny Void, Mike at Vox Political, and the Angry Yorkshireman, have posted about the use of psychological techniques by the notorious Nudge unit at Tory Central Office, which are intended to get the poor to blame themselves for their poverty, rather than the inequalities of a vicious and exploitative system. These bloggers, and many others, have noted the way much of the Coalitions’ policies have been inspired and guided by Social Darwinism, the survival of the economic fittest. Marcus confirms this view, as he states in a footnote to the chapter on poverty studies in America that it may be significant that as Marxism, the main ideological opponent of Social Darwinism in the 19th century, has waned, so Social Darwinism has re-emerged and grown stronger.

And so we in Britain ultimately have Richard Nixon to thank for the bullying and punitive approach to welfare adopted by Thatcher and the Coalition. Perhaps its time someone did the same to Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and particularly IDS and Esther McVey and impeached them for their high crimes and misdemeanours.

Advertisements